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April 07, 2023

Acquisition: Charles White

Charles White, "I Accuse"

Charles White
I Accuse, c. 1950
oil on canvas
overall: 63.5 x 76.2 cm (25 x 30 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Patrons' Permanent Fund and Gift of P. Bruce Marine and Donald Hardy

Charles White (1918–1979) was a celebrated artist, teacher, and activist who magnified the power of the Black figure in drawings, prints, murals, and paintings. The National Gallery of Art has acquired its first painting by the artist, I Accuse (c. 1950), which joins several prints by White in the collection. The acquisition was made possible by Patrons’ Permanent Fund and through the generosity of P. Bruce Marine and Donald Hardy.

I Accuse depicts a mother of one of the “Scottsboro Boys”—nine African American teenagers falsely accused and tried for rape in the 1930s—who traveled the country with other mothers to raise awareness of the unjust trials of their incarcerated sons. Inspired by Émile Zola’s account of the Dreyfus Affair of 1894, the title serves as an indictment of the US legal system.

The woman—in a stance reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty—holds a stack of paper in one arm and extends the other, pointing a finger to implicate her audience in the systemic racial injustices experienced by her son and other Black Americans. White’s image is a powerful reminder that the American ideals of freedom, progress, and opportunity have not pertained to all citizens.

The issues surrounding I Accuse concerned the artist for years. In 1966, White returned to the theme of racial injustice and oppression in the form of a series of drawings titled J’Accuse. I Accuse was one of four oil paintings he exhibited by ACA Gallery in a group show, .... Five Artists (December 24, 1951–January 5, 1952). White later donated the painting to an auction to benefit the American Communist Party. At the time, he was among many artists who supported the party, which sponsored the travels and appearances of the “Scottsboro Mothers” across the United States and Europe.

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